Literary Devices of Depicting Revenge in Hamlet

There are many useful devices that are used throughout works of literature to help develop the characters and the plot. One useful device that helps develop the characters, in particular, is a foil. According to M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms, a foil is “a character in a work who, by sharp contrast, serves to stress and highlight the distinctive temperament of the protagonist”. This is extremely useful in literature because it helps the reader figure out the characters, as well as understand the importance of their roles in the work. This device is very common, and is used frequently in works, such as Hamlet by William Shakespeare, where the development of the character is essential to the readers understanding of the story.

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There are many characters throughout the play, Hamlet, that serve as a foil to the protagonist, Hamlet, one of which being Laertes. Hamlet and Laertes are two characters that are observed throughout the play, and are noted for their similar life experiences, yet their vastly different ways of handling them which makes them continuously contrast each other throughout the play. The occurrence of this trend throughout the play helps Laertes serve as an excellent foil, by highlighting the distinctive characteristics of our protagonist, Hamlet. For example, both Laertes and Hamlet share a similar goal of seeking revenge for the murder of their fathers. In Hamlet’s hunt for revenge, he is faced with a plethora of issues, all rooting from his inability to make a decision and put his words into action. He threatens to take action on many different occasions throughout the play, however, he finds himself in metaphorical restraints due to his overactive brain and his rational thinking. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes is burning with ambition and force, and says that he will “throw conscience and grace to the profoundest pit”. The way that Laertes goes about this task stresses how different these two characters are, and in the process of doing so, highlights one of Hamlet’s main flaws, his indecisiveness. Although this example stresses how different these two characters’ attitudes may be, there are instances throughout the play in which their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies are akin. For instance, the way these two characters handle anger is very similar. Both characters act out in very impulsive ways, often leading to the emergence of drama and complications in their lives. For example, Hamlet rushes into his mother’s bedroom, sword drawn, and is in search of Claudius, the newly crowned King. As Hamlet flounces about the room, he hears noise from behind the drapery. Out of pure anger, Hamlet made an impulsive decision to impale the drapery hanging upon the wall, and the supposed Claudius who is hiding behind it. Sadly, Polonius’ voice was mistaken for Cladius’, and he was stabbed to death. Enraged by the sudden death of his father, Laertes jumps to action, and based on pure assumption, seeks revenge on Claudius, the expected culprit. Laertes acts on impulse and anger to avenge his father’s death and states, “I dare damnation: to this point I stand, that both worlds I give to negligence, let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father”.

Another character in this play who would be considered a foil to the protagonist, Hamlet, is Ophelia, Laertes’ sister. Ophelia is referred to, and recognized as Hamlet’s love interest, however, she is more commonly known in this play for the characteristics she shares with Hamlet, as well as the contrasting ones which become more apparent to the reader as the plot heightens, especially in times of death and grief. When Ophelia’s loving father, Polonius, spontaneously dies, the grief causes her mental stability to decrease, as presented in Act IV, Scene 5. In Act IV, Scene 5, Ophelia is depicted running around the castle, chanting songs, such as “He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone, At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone. Oh, ho,” and “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine. Then up he rose, and donned his clothes, And dupped the chamber door. Let in the maid that out a maid Never departed more”. At this point in the play, it is clear to everyone around her, including Gertrude and Claudius, that Ophelia has genuinely gone mad. Claudius, aware of her mental state, orders Horatio to “Follow her close,” and “ give her good watch,” in a desperate attempt to keep her safe , and to keep others around her safe as well. This aspect of the plot serves to show the reader what true madness looks like, and in doing so, highlights Hamlet’s “madness” as being insignificant and fictitious. Hamlet even tells Horatio and Marcellus that he is going to put an “antic disposition on,” clarifying to the readers that his madness is in fact, fake. Although it seems clear that Hamlet’s mental instability is unreal, The legitimacy of Hamlet’s madness is a commonly debated topic surrounding this play due to the evolution of the character.

Although there are many useful literary devices that help develop the characters in the play, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the foil is the most useful of them all. There are many examples of foils in this play, such as Laertes and Ophelia, the characters mentioned previously, along with many others such as Fortinbras and Horatio. In this work specifically, foils are extremely useful because it helps the reader understand who Hamlet is as a character, as well as emphasizing the specific characteristics he inhabits that makes the story seem sensible, and makes the plot feel practical and complete.   

07 April 2022

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